Posts Tagged “software”

The JavaScript Arms Race

Published on July 10, 2009

It seems like every web browser these days is spending an enormous amount of time and development effort on JavaScript performance. Whether it’s the new TraceMonkey engine in Firefox 3.5, the V8 engine in Google Chrome, or the upcoming SquirrelFish engine in WebKit browsers, everyone claims (to some degree) superiority in this arms race. All of this raises two questions in my mind.

1. How important is JavaScript performance?
Are JavaScript applications really that slow? I’ll admit that the new Firefox 3.5 browser feels snappier on sites like GMail and Netflix, but said sites never felt that slow before. Why are developers spending so much time optimizing something that not everyone uses? Admittedly, JavaScript usage is going up (especially with the Web 2.0 craze), but how much latency does JavaScript computing really account for in today’s world? I’m much more concerned about data transfer; that’s the bottleneck I see. Broadband speeds here in the United States are ridiculously slow, compared to other parts of the world. Shouldn’t we all focus on ways to improve that? Yes, I know software developers have little control over that kind of infrastructure, but perhaps there are better protocols out there to get data to the end user in a more efficient manner.

2. Won’t improved JavaScript performance lead to poorer JavaScript programming?
As computers have gotten faster over the past two decades, and as memory sizes have increased, applications have become more bloated and (arguably) slower than before. I’m convinced that if programmers had retained the “every byte matters” mentality from the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, applications would be leaner and meaner than they are today (especially in the realm of operating systems). Can’t the same thing be said for JavaScript programming? As JavaScript engines get faster, serious performance considerations during an application’s design phase might become less and less frequent. I’m of the opinion that high performance hardware can lead to sloppy programming. “Well, the application is good enough” is what the pointy-haired bosses of the world would say. Shouldn’t the application be the best it can be? Can’t one argue that “good enough” isn’t necessarily good enough?

I’ll be interested to see where this arms race takes us. What do you think?

Backup Strategies

Published on June 23, 2009

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about backup strategies for my data. I’m bad about not backing things up on a regular basis, and I’m hoping to change that. There are a number of routes one can take, and I’ve been looking at several.

The easiest solution is to backup data onto removable media (CD, DVD, or an external hard drive). This method is cheapest, but it also has some serious drawbacks. CDs and DVDs have relatively small data footprints, which means you have to use many discs to backup sizable data stores. Writable discs also don’t last forever. The most serious flaw with this strategy, however, is that the backups are not off site. If someone breaks in and steals my computer, they are almost certain to also take the external hard drive sitting next to it. The same can be said for a fire; if the machine burns, so does the hard drive.

A number of online services are available for doing data backup. Carbonite and Mozy are two of the bigger ones I’ve heard about. These services give you off site backups, but they too have drawbacks. Often, these services have software that runs all the time on your machine, incrementally backing up as you go (which may be something you don’t want). In some cases, you also have limited control over exactly what gets backed up. The services cost money, and you’re giving your data to a third party. And, with lousy broadband in the US, initial upload times for large data can be painfully slow.

What does everyone here do to backup their data? Can anyone recommend a service or strategy that works well for them?

Windows 7 is Shaping Up

Published on January 15, 2009

I never thought I’d get around to saying this (especially so early in its lifetime), but Windows 7 is really starting to appeal to me. Over the past few days, both Gizmodo and Lifehacker have been showcasing some of the cool new features. Several have caught my eye:

The New Taskbar
The new taskbar inside of Windows 7 looks great. Gone is the separation between the quick-launch menu and the standard list of task buttons. Instead, the two have been merged into one entity; very clever! However, I wonder what it’s like with a large number of icons. I’m a huge quick-launch user and couldn’t live without it. For instance, here on my laptop, I’ve got 28 icons at my disposal, with another 7 squirreled away in a sub-menu. The screenshots at the Gizmodo story only show the large icons in use. At those sizes, my taskbar would clearly take up a lot of screen real estate. Hopefully, the icon sizes are either settable via a preference or scale down on the fly.
20 New Themes
Windows 7 ships with a total of 20 themes, all of which look fantastic. This will be a welcome change from the 3 ugly themes in XP.
Problem Steps Recorder
Being able to create a web-based slideshow of a problem recreation scenario is awesome. My only fear is that, if it’s like any other web-based stuff Microsoft has done, the resulting HTML is bloated, ugly, inaccessible, and devoid of validation.
Improved File in Use Messages
Knowing exactly why a file is in use is totally rad. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

Improved performance looks like it will be making its way to Windows 7, another great reason to look forward to the new OS. The sound virtualization introduced in Vista is a great feature, and one I wish existed in XP.

With all of these great new features, there are still a few things I’m apprehensive about. The graphical intensity of it all still seems ridiculous, especially the ‘Aero Peek’ feature, which feels like a cheap gimmick. I’m not a fan of the ribbon interfaces, simply because it’s an entirely new paradigm (I can work with menus just fine, thanks). And what of the new user security model introduced in Vista? Are the problems solved?

If Microsoft continues to head in their current direction, I’ll seriously consider upgrading once the OS is released. That’s a far cry from my opinions in the early Vista days.

Google Chrome

Published on September 3, 2008

There’s an incredibly insightful comic (hat tip to Dustin) on the new Google Chrome web browser. It explains a number of the design decisions that the Chrome team has made, and the ramifications behind them. There are some very interesting ideas in this new web browser:

  • Instead of taking the pure multi-threaded route, Google has instead opted for a multi-process route. According to their explanation, this requires a larger up-front memory quota, but reduces memory fragmentation over time (the cause of the much misunderstood ‘memory leak’ in Firefox).
  • The user interface is quite clever, with tabs appearing above all of the other browser chrome. This groups the controls more logically, and reinforces the separate processes model (you can drag tabs from one window to another, for example).
  • Chrome’s security model is clever, again thanks to the multi-process model.

As can be expected with this kind of thing, the media is buzzing about this new entry into the browser space. Some people are heralding its arrival, while others are brushing it off. There are several problems I foresee with Chrome that I believe will prevent it from becoming the new defacto web browser:

Accessibility
This is the biggest potential flaw with this web browser. According to one report, Chrome is far from accessible. No matter how good Chrome turns out to be from a functionality point-of-view, if it’s not accessible, it won’t be accepted by major corporations or government entities. Given Google’s very poor track record, I don’t have high hopes on improvements in this area.
No Add-ons
As far as I know, Chrome does not support add-ons like Firefox. That means no Adblock Plus, CoLT, or Firebug. That’s a deal breaker for me.
Security Concerns
Google’s security model for Chrome is clever, but as security problems are found, how quickly will they be patched? Google has never been prompt on releases (the last Google Talk update was in 2006), so I’m leery of how readily they will respond.
Stupid Name
Chrome is a ridiculous name. How many millions of other stuff out there has the word ‘chrome’ in it? It doesn’t stand out, and seems a little bland, in my opinion.

I haven’t yet downloaded the browser to try it out, but I plan on doing so soon. Have you tried it out? If so, what do you think?

Windows XP Service Pack 3

Published on August 26, 2008

Just the other day, after weeks of nagging by the automatic update daemon, I installed Windows XP service pack 3 on my desktop machine. So far, so good. I was quite leery of installing the update pack, seeing as Microsoft has fallen off the beam of competent programming in recent times. In fact, I’m still putting off updating my work laptop, out of fear that something will stop working. I’ve read reports online (and heard firsthand accounts at work) of automatic updates failing to install properly after installing SP3. Since no updates have been pushed out since I updated my system, I can’t say one way or the other.

Zone Alarm and MS Update 951748

Published on July 9, 2008

Just yesterday, Microsoft released a ‘critical update’ for issue 951748, fixing a DNS security hole. It turns out that this fix completely hoses the Zone Alarm software firewall (which I happen to run). In essence, you completely lose your internet connection.

The folks that make the Zone Alarm firewall are aware of the problem. For now, they suggest two workarounds: either uninstall the MS fix or set the firewall security slider to medium (down from high). Hopefully, a true fix will be issued within the next few days.

Update: This problem has even made Slashdot.

Who Doesn’t Use Anti-Virus?

Published on May 30, 2008

Are there any readers here who use Windows and don’t make use of an anti-virus client? I’ve been thinking about ditching my anti-virus client altogether on my personal system, and after reading an interesting article on the subject, I’m wondering if anyone else out there has taken this route. In my experience, anti-virus solutions are slow, ineffective (I’m not sure they’ve ever flagged anything for me over the years), and are generally a bother to keep up with.

If you’ve ditched anti-virus, why’d you do it? And what have been your results?

SlickEdit 2007 Rocks!

Published on March 7, 2008

My license for SlickEdit at work was renewed recently, so I upgraded to SlickEdit 2007, the latest release of this already amazing program. A boat-load of new features are included in this new release, but my absolute favorite is the new dynamic surround feature. Check out this demo of the feature in action (be sure to turn up your speakers; the sound is a little low). How super cool is that? I have actually wanted this particular feature for some time, so I’m very excited that it has actually been implemented. You can even unsurround things, should you choose to do so!

There are plenty of other great new features to be had:

  • Improved XML / HTML formatting
  • Export documents to HTML (preserving all syntax-highlighting … how great is this?!?)
  • Copy and paste in color
  • Drag and drop support in KDE and Gnome
  • Get live errors in Java as you type (similar to the corresponding functionality in Eclipse, I assume)
  • And more!

You can check out the complete list [PDF] of new features (all 5 pages worth) at the SlickEdit website. I’m seriously considering upgrading my license at home, though the $139 upgrade price is pretty steep. If you are in the market for a good code editor, I strongly recommend SlickEdit.

The MinWin Concept

Published on January 28, 2008

There’s an interesting article at InformationWeek about the new Windows architecture that Microsoft is developing. Windows 7, which is slated to be the successor to Vista, will use a new “MinWin” architecture. Essentially, the Windows core will be stripped down to the bare essentials, and additional functionality will be supplied through modules. According to the article, Eric Traut, a Microsoft distinguished engineer, demoed a version of the Windows core running with only a 25 MB footprint (as opposed to the 4 GB footprint of Vista).

I think this is a step in the right direction. Hard drive size increases have made sloppy programming, resulting in software bloat, much more prevalent. It’s time to step back, trim the fat, and work towards leaner software.

Three iTunes Annoyances

Published on January 21, 2008

There are a few gripes I’ve got with iTunes, all of which revolve around my subscriptions to podcasts:

1. Large downloads freeze iTunes (and sometimes the entire system) upon completion.
When a large (~250 to 500 MB) video podcast file has completed downloading, iTunes will completely freeze up. It feels to me like this hang is related to copying the file from a temporary download location to the intended destination (which is undoubtedly what iTunes is doing). Seeing as iTunes is a multi-threaded application, this should not, under any circumstance, happen. It should spawn a child thread to do the copy operation in the background, so that I can still use the application. Every once in a while, I even see my entire system hang up during this operation, which is doubly bad.
2. Some video files cannot be recycled immediately after viewing them.
After completing a video podcast, I find that I cannot immediately recycle the corresponding file from within iTunes. If I try to do so, the entry in iTunes is removed, but the file does not get removed! To recycle the file properly, I have to shut down iTunes, start it back up, and delete the entry. Somewhere a handle isn’t being released properly, and the file remains locked. Again, this is a bug that could easily be solved.
3. The Windows screen saver screws up video playback.
If you have iTunes installed on a Windows system, try this experiment. Get a video file through iTunes (a video podcast for example), and start it playing. Pause the video and walk away from your computer for a while. Allow the screen saver to turn on and, when it has, come back to your computer. When the screen saver is cleared, try to play the video again. What happens? No video! This particular bug has existed for years (I’ve seen forum references to this bug as far back as iTunes 5 and 6), and it’s apparently a known bug at Apple. That they don’t get around to fixing it is very intriguing to me.

The End is Truly Near

Published on December 27, 2007

If there has ever been proof that we are living in the end times, it’s this: Internet Explorer 8 has passed the Acid2 test. This is the scariest thing I’ve heard all year.

Interestingly enough, IE8 only passes this test in ‘Standards Mode.’ From what I’ve gathered through brief searching around the web, this appears to be an IE8-only feature that requires some ‘magic meta-tag’ to enable, though I’m only getting the sketchiest details. The comments in this post shed a little light, but not as much as I might have hoped for.

The Downside of Electronic Distribution

Published on October 16, 2007

This past Sunday afternoon, I made the decision to purchase The Orange Box on Steam, forgoing the traditional media route. You might recall that I did the same thing with Half-Life 2: Episode 1, swearing to never do it again. I have since changed my mind on the matter. It occurred to me that Valve is a company I truly want to support. Unlike any other game developer, I actually look forward to their game releases. Much like supporting local farmers through a local farmer’s market, I decided I would buy this package right from the source, cutting out the middle man.

The only downside to electronic distribution is the fact that you have to actually download the content. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is approximately 6 GB in size (according to Steam), so it took a while to get, even on our cable connection. Having the physical media to install with would have been much quicker, but I feel that my direct support of Valve outweighs that minor quibble.

I have since downloaded both Episode 2 and Portal, and have played through both once (I was up very late last night). There is so much I want to write about each, that I will separate my thoughts for both into two posts. Stay tuned.

Thunderbird in Trouble?

Published on October 10, 2007

On Monday, Slashdot carried a story about two key developers leaving the Thunderbird project. Is this a sign of troubled times ahead? Mozilla is attempting to spin off the product into its own company, which seems rife with failure to me. As a user of Thunderbird, I certainly hope that this isn’t the end of such a great product.

Windows XP SP3 in Beta

Published on October 8, 2007

The third service pack for the Windows XP operating system has now officially entered the beta testing phase. According to an article at neosmart.net (link points to a network mirror, since the site is down), there are 1,073 patches in this service pack, a testament to how long it’s been since SP2 was released. What I find most interesting, however, is that Microsoft is back-porting features from Vista into this service pack. A few specific features have been mentioned:

  • New Windows Product Activation model
  • Network Access Protection modules and policies
  • New Microsoft Kernel Mode Cryptographic Module
  • New “Black Hole Router” detection

Could these back-ported features be a sign that Microsoft is getting ready to drop Vista? Take up on the new operating system has reportedly been very slow, with the large vendors (HP, Dell, etc.) requesting XP preloads instead of Vista, due to customer demand. Microsoft has always been its own biggest competitor, and this could be a sign of a power struggle within the corporation (XP teams vs. Vista teams). If they do indeed pull the plug, I predict a collective sigh of relief from around the globe. Only time will tell what happens.

Thoughts on iTunes 7

Published on September 25, 2007

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, I recently bought my first iPod (the 80 GB, generation 6 model). I haven’t gotten much time to play with it due to constant interruptions at work (which really sucks), so I’ll be coming back to it later this week. For now, I’d like to share some thoughts on iTunes 7.

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Vignette Correction With Photoshop CS2

Published on August 6, 2007

I was touching up some of my photographs recently when I noticed that one shot in particular had substantial vignetting. Wishing to use this photograph as a desktop wallpaper, I set out to try and remove this effect from the photograph. All of the standard Photoshop tools failed to do the trick. Both the clone tool and healing tool produced poor results. Disappointed, I searched the web for help. Thankfully, I found the answer I was looking for: a new filter introduced in Photoshop CS2.

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Improving iTunes Video Performance

Published on July 29, 2007

I recently installed Apple iTunes for the first time (the QuickTime install on my laptop was having lots of problems). One of the first things I tried out was subscribing to a video podcast (specifically The Totally Rad Show), which was fairly easy to do. As soon as I started to play the latest episode, I noted that playback performance was horrible. I never had this kind of performance problem with QuickTime, so I was a little surprised that iTunes would be so different.

A quick Google search turned up a support article from Apple on iTunes performance in Windows XP and 2000. All of the standard suggestions are there (make sure you’re computer is fast enough, download the latest version, etc.), but one suggestion caught my eye: “Disable Direct3D video acceleration in QuickTime.”

I ventured to the Windows Control Panel, opened the QuickTime item, and turned off the Direct3D video acceleration. To my surprise, performance was restored! Who knew that a simple toggle could solve such an annoying problem?

In loosely related news, I’m getting closer to actually buying an iPod (something I thought I’d never do). More on this later.

You don’t know the power of the Dark Side; I must obey my master. — Darth Vader

Thoughts on Windows Media Player 11

Published on June 25, 2007

Several weeks ago, I finally got around to installing Windows Media Player 11. Having put it through its paces, I’d like to share my thoughts on this release.

The most apparent change in WMP 11 is the new look and feel, courtesy of Windows Vista. In fact, the player features the Vista-esque minimize, maximize, and close buttons in the upper right hand corner. Strangely enough, a 1-pixel “dead zone” exists above each of these buttons when the application is maximized. I tend to run most applications maximized, and when I want to either minimize or close a window, I throw my mouse all the way up to the upper right of the screen. With Media Player 11, I can’t do that. Instead, I have to move the mouse down at least 1 pixel from the top to activate any of the buttons. What an unnecessary aggravation, not to mention a break in the Windows XP standard!

The entire interface, as with most things Microsoft tries to make modern, looks like it has been coated in plastic. Everything is black, with the exception of the buttons, which sport an electric blue, back-lit effect. Overall, the interface feels uninspired, but it’s one I can live with. It took me a while to figure out that you have to right click the top of the player to access the standard application menus. Why exactly is Microsoft getting rid of the menus in all of its new applications? Internet Explorer 7 does the same thing.

The new media library interface is a prime example of Media Player’s stance as an iTunes wannabe. Gone is the oh-so-useful tree control for browsing through your stored albums. Instead, the user is presented with a visual collection of music “stacks,” as Microsoft calls them. The more albums in your library for a particular artist, the bigger that artist’s stack will be. This new interface is fairly confusing to me. I have a much harder time finding the artist I want to listen to now, mostly because I can’t quickly scan for the artist’s name (looking down an alphabetized tree control was much easier). One other problem is that the media library is very slow, especially on initial startup. It takes Media Player a while to load all of the album art it needs to display, and this initial slowdown is quite noticeable.

Speaking of album art, Media Player occasionally can’t find the appropriate album cover image. One 2-disc collection of mine (John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection) has the correct album image for disc 1, but only has a blank placeholder for disc 2. I note that some of the meta-data for disc 2 also differs, so it’s no doubt a problem with the music database service that Microsoft uses. It’s still a noteworthy annoyance.

I can find at least one positive note about the new media library interface. Playing music from the artist level, rather than the album level, allows me to listen to all of a particular artist’s albums without having to click through them. Media Player automatically moves to the next album in the list when the current album has finished playing, a most welcome feature.

Playing videos through WMP 11 is fine, though I have experienced some occasional stuttering on locally saved files. I recently attempted to watch an episode of Diggnation that I had downloaded, and I found that I could not jump around in the video without experiencing incredible delays of 5 to 10 seconds or more. This wasn’t a problem in version 10.

Ripping music has changed slightly (progress bars now advance in 10% increments), but still seems fast. I have not yet performed a sync operation with my Creative Zen Micro, so I can’t comment on that part of the application. I’m avoiding the “built-in” Napster and URGE music stores, since I still prefer to obtain music on CD.

I’m not sure how to sum up Media Player 11. While it has a few nice features, I think Microsoft has generally taken a step in the wrong direction with this. Have you used WMP 11? If so, what do you think?

Thunderbird 2.0 Released

Published on April 19, 2007

It looks like the next generation of the Thunderbird e-mail client has been released. Although I have not yet updated my client at home, I will certainly be doing so tonight. Thunderbird is a fantastic client, and I am really looking forward to all the new features (not to mention the boat loads of bug fixes).

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